Are you getting ready to host a feast (or bring a dish to one?) under a snug Baltimore roof this season? While you're planning out your menu and setting up your grocery list, give a thought to what's in season -- not only will you get better prices on produce in season, but you'll also get better quality fruits and vegetables. As if that wasn't enough, you have a better chance of lowering the carbon footprint of your meal by reducing the distance your food needs to travel (out of season fruits and veggies typically come from greenhouses and the Southern Hemisphere, which makes for a lot of frequent flyer miles!).
Hopefully you have some veggies of your own at your place that are starting to ripen up, but as you get ready to hit the farmers' market, greengrocer, or grocery store, here's what to look for, and how to use it in a way that's not totally boring and old hat.
Potatoes, including sweet potatoes and "yams"
These root veggies are in fine fettle at this time of year, and while you can mash or smash them, bake them and eat them plain, or include them in pies, there are other uses. Try roasting them with other root veggies for a hearty side, making latkes (who says you can't celebrate Hannukah early?), creating some delicious sweet potato fries, or making Hasselback potatoes.
What's the deal with yams? Well, what we call yams in the West are actually just another variety of sweet potato, no matter what the sign in the grocery store tells you. True yams are an unrelated tuber used in African and South American cuisine, and you can sometimes find them at your local markets. But be warned: real yams won't perform like sweet potatoes!
These boggy delights are, of course, a staple of the Thanksgiving table, adding a nice note of acidity and sourness as a relish for turkey and fixings. While you can use them to make cranberry sauce with a myriad of recipes, you can also employ them in stuffings and pies, where they add delicious bursts of tart flavor.
Kale and other dark leafy greens
These hardy greens can be encouraged to grow year-round in many climates, which is good news for you if you like greens at the table. And you should: Thanksgiving tends to be heavy on starches, and light on nutritious roughage that can help you digest your meal more comfortably.
Instead of cooking your greens to death, try a massaged raw kale salad, smashed potatoes with kale, or flash-steamed kale with a little lemon juice, salt, and pepper. You might find that you enjoy dark leafy greens more when they're lightly cooked, as they tend not to get as astringent and bitter when they're taken off the heat quickly.
Another Thanksgiving staple, winter squash is a great addition to the table in soups, stews, and more. Have you considered stuffing acorn squash and roasting it with some rashers of bacon across the top for extra flavor? How about roasted or steamed delicata squash as a mild, flavorful side dish? Meanwhile, spaghetti squash can make a great side with a little butter or oil, and kids tend to love it thanks to its fun texture.
As a hardcore beet lover, I can't speak highly enough of beets, although I hear they're controversial. You can steam or roast them whole and use them warm or cold in salads, sides, and more, in addition to roasted root vegetable sides. If you're not a fan of red beets, don't worry: they come in a range of colors and flavors, and you might just find one you love.
Persimmons are just starting to come into season, and they don't have to be an after-dinner snack (although they're great for that, too). Try them in salads (remember, those things filled with greens that you're supposed to have on the table to balance out all those carbs?), or as an addition to cranberry sauce. You can also make persimmon relish if you want an unusual sauce for your turkey.
One of the most misunderstood and hated winter vegetables, these cabbage relatives are packed with flavor, if you bring it out right! Rule one is to avoid overcooking, and rule two is to think outside the box. Yes, you can steam them and serve them plain with oil and salt, but what about roasting them in the oven instead for a caramelized, slightly crunchy finish?
Another classic dish starts with sliced bacon (or olive oil, for those who don't eat pork) in a heavy pan on the stove, followed by some garlic and shallots. Allow the vegetables to soften before adding halved Brussels sprouts, and then cover, stirring occasionally. The result is a richly flavorful, complex dish with a lot of character that people at the table may just end up fighting over.
This is a beautiful time of year for mushroom, thanks to the rains sweeping in. Branch outside your comfort zone with varieties you're not familiar with. For vegans and vegetarians, oyster or porcini mushrooms can make a great addition to stuffing to create a rich, meaty flavor without the ethical compromise!
If you're feeling really ambitious, think about mushroom logs. You can buy kits at the store, make your own, or ask a handyman for help with drilling out a log. By maintaining a mushroom log, you can get a huge crop of mushrooms every year; in fact, you'll probably have so many that you need to start drying them for use when your log is resting.
These beautiful fruits make more than stunning table displays. Their seeds are fantastic in salads and go well in stuffings, wild rice blends, and other dishes, in addition to being suitable for relishes. If you're starting to think about dessert, consider pomegranate seeds as decorations for cheesecake, pumpkin pie, puddings, and tarts.
A t the Thanksgiving table, carrots all too often show up candied, but that isn't the only way you have to eat this delicious winter root vegetable. Roasting is always an option, but you could also try sauteing them with herbs and spices for a slightly different take on the traditional candied carrot side dish. Tip: try curry powder and a little coconut milk for a surprising side dish that might intrigue your guests!
'tis the season for citrus, including lemons, limes, oranges, mandarins, and more. That makes for some tasty snacks, but you can also use citrus in sauces and dressings as well as, of course, desserts. Surprise guests with lemon meringue pie, or meyer lemon sorbet!
Seasonality varies by area, too, so if you want a more detailed breakdown, check out this Peak-Season Map or your local farmers' market.
Katie Marks writes for Networx.com.